Climate Apocalypse Now: Venus, Anyone?

Published in Policy Magazine

As governments the world over mobilize to address the COVID crisis and formulate health and economic policy solutions to its immediate impacts that will prove wise in the medium and longer term, the climate crisis has not gone anywhere. As former Green Party leader and renowned climate activist Elizabeth May writes, this may be our last lifetime in which to seize the “once in a lifetime opportunity” to address climate change.

Elizabeth May

August 10th, 2020


Being in self-isolation, working on zoom and trying to move mountains faster to address COVID, life these days sometimes feels surreal. The climate disaster news headlines keep coming. The alarm bells are ringing ever more loudly: We are in a climate emergency. The most recent sign of the climate apocalypse: the Milne Ice Shelf in Nunavut, the last fully intact ice shelf in the country, has collapsed into the Eastern Arctic.

I am, for the first time in decades of working on the threat of global warming, beginning to wonder if anything will alert us to the threat with sufficient resolve to save ourselves. How do we talk about apocalypse when we are in it?

For decades, the trite observation has been made that humanity’s response to the climate emergency is like the frog in the slowly warming pot of water.  If it had been a boiling pot of water, the frog would have jumped out. But in slowly warming water, the frog will just boil alive.

We seem to be moving to a rolling boil, and yet we do nothing.  Nothing at all.

We were issued a clear and compelling warning from the world’s largest peer-review science process — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — in October 2018.

In response, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres stated:

“This report by the world’s leading climate scientists is an ear-splitting wake-up call to the world. It confirms that climate change is running faster than we are — and we are running out of time.”

In response to that ear-splitting wake-up call, we have hit the snooze button.

At COP21 in 2015, Canada played a key role in ensuring the Paris Agreement committed to trying to hold global average temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius increase above what it was before the Industrial Revolution. We were the first industrialized country to move to holding at 1.5, supporting the low-lying island states for whom failing to meet that goal is an existential threat. Back in Copenhagen in 2009, at the climate negotiations that failed so spectacularly, the entire continent of Africa’s delegations had marched from the plenary in protest, chanting “One point five to stay alive.”

The IPCC October 2018 report had been requested as part of the Paris negotiations to understand the difference in loss of life and catastrophic impacts between holding to 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees. The report made it clear: those chants were literally true. For millions of people it really is a matter of life and death to hold to 1.5 degrees.

Tipping points in the atmosphere are neither well understood nor easily identified. We cannot identify a clear red line that must not be crossed. It is best to think of the risks in terms of odds.

Odds are pretty good that civilization can survive if global average temperature goes to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But the IPCC made it clear; while the odds of survival are better at 1.5 than at 2, there is no guarantee. We are already well into a danger zone.

At some point, without action, we run up against that completely terrifying risk. There is a point somewhere above 1.5 degrees when the heat unleashed by humanity triggers unstoppable, irreversible warming. At that point, all bets are off. In other words, the worst-case scenario for a climate crisis is not bad weather and high sea levels. The worst case is the loss of a habitable biosphere. This threat of “hothouse earth” or “runaway global warming” is due to something called “positive feedback loops.”

It has been one of the more famous “surprises” for climate scientists that the positive feedback loop from melting Arctic ice has so dramatically increased the speed at which ice is lost. When the ice melts, dark ocean water is revealed, which reverses its albedo from the heat-reflecting whiteness of ice to the heat-absorbing darkness of water, leading to more ice melt. Other feedback loops include forest fires releasing carbon heating the atmosphere to create more forest fires.  Melting permafrost releases a very powerful GHG, methane. If all the permafrost in the world were to melt, the release of methane would be four times more GHG than we have burned since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So that does not bear thinking about for long. Let’s just make sure that doesn’t happen.

Two key “tipping points” that must be avoided would be losing the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet or the Greenland Ice Sheet. Because ice sheets sit in land, if they are lost, dislodging their mass to the sea, sea level rise is significantly impacted. According to the global consortium called the GRACE project (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite system), loss of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet could result in 8-metre sea level rise for Canada. One of GRACE’s principal researchers, Dr. Richard Peltier from the Physics Department at University of Toronto, described it to me as similar to water sloshing in a bathtub.

Tipping points in the atmosphere are neither well understood nor easily identified. We cannot identify a clear red line that must not be crossed. It is best to think of the risks in terms of odds.

A large displacement of water at the South Pole will slosh more water to our shores, than if the relatively nearby Greenland Ice Sheet was dislodged into the ocean. To avoid these tipping points, it is critical to keep global average temperature at no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In Canada, we paid some attention to the 2018 IPCC report. The report led to an emergency debate on October 16, 2018 in the House, on a request that I made more or less simultaneously with Liberal Nate Erskine Smith and the NDP caucus.

As I told the House that night: “We have one chance, one chance only, within which all the nations on earth agree that we meant what we said in Paris, that we must hold the global average temperature increase to no more than 1.5°. This IPCC special report contains good news because it says we can do it. It says there are no physical, geological or geochemical conditions of planetary existence, technical or economic, that will prevent us from achieving the goal of protecting our children’s future, not future generations in the hypothetical, the children who are here now. I am talking about the grandchildren I tuck into bed at night, those children, not hypothetical children. All of us know those children. They are our children. We have one chance to ensure that in their natural lifespan they enjoy a hospitable biosphere that has sustained humanity since we first got up and walked on two legs.”

And I concluded: “Time is not on our side. History may not be on our side, but by God, we better be on our side.”

We had another emergency debate eight months later, on June 18, 2019. Following that debate we passed the Liberal motion declaring that we are in a climate emergency. No other party leader was in the House that night.  They were all in Toronto for the parade to celebrate the Raptors win. I cannot blame them, but the Liberals did schedule when the debate and vote took place. And the next day, they confirmed we were buying the Trans Mountain pipeline and expansion project.

Since then, the climate statistics for 2018 (the most recent year for which we have records) have been released. Canada’s emissions went up again.  Our climate goal — unchanged from the Harper administration — is further out of reach. That target, is, as noted in my speech from October 2018, is approximately one half of what we must do.

As U.N. Secretary General António Guterres wrote nearly two years ago, “We see the consequences all around us — more extreme weather, rising sea levels, diminishing Arctic sea ice. The scientists paint the most vivid picture we have ever had between a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees versus 2 degrees. A half-degree of warming makes a world of difference.

This spring the global atmosphere reached a terrifying new concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere — 418 parts per million. It may not sound like a lot — after all, parts per million (ppm) amounts to a vanishingly small amount of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere. But it is a stark reminder of how powerful these warming gases are. For at least the last million years, global concentrations of CO2 were never above 280 ppm. Yet, without those trace amounts of greenhouse gases, this planet would have been too cold to sustain life.

To have gone from 280 ppm at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to 418 ppm in 2020 is an enormous difference — nearly a 50 percent increase. No human being throughout history ever breathed air with such a large amount of CO2. And concentrations, unlike metric tons of pollution, do not turn on a dime. Concentrations are the netted- out result of all the carbon sequestration performed by green leafy vegetation and oceans. It is not a figure that rises and sinks quickly. It will take centuries to shift global average concentrations downward.  Increases on 418 ppm are already baked into the system. 2020 is on track to be the hottest year on record.

Has COVID given us a reprieve? Or hurt our chances of survival? It really depends.  It is true that there were big drops in emissions of GHG during the height of the pandemic. We stayed home. We flew less. The air was clearer.

But the International Energy Agency projects that, overall, 2020 will only see 4-8 percent reductions in GHG compared to 2019.

The key question is “How do we bounce back?” The only time Canadian emissions have dropped in recent years was during the 2008 economic crisis. But when the economy recovered, our emissions rose again. For purposes of a ballpark comparison with other industrialized countries, the U.S. is still reducing emissions. The 1992 global treaty within which Kyoto and Paris were negotiated set 1990 as the base year. It was Canada’s sabotage under Stephen Harper to start changing base years willy-nilly. So, our current target of 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 is hard to compare with the UK target of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Our 2030 target is generally referred to the “Paris target,” but it was set by the Harper government six months before the negotiations. Under the terms of Paris, Canada must adopt a more ambitious target within calendar 2020, yet the Environment minister has failed to confirm that we will.  Our existing target remains entirely inconsistent with Paris goals. While Paris aims for 1.5 degrees C, if every country on earth had the same goal as Canada, global average temperature increase would be 5.1 degrees C. Venus, anyone?

To compare apples to apples, the UK has reduced by 40 percent below 1990 levels; Canada has increased GHG emissions by nearly 21 percent above our 1990 levels (growing from 603 MT in 1990 to 729 MT in 2018.) The entire EU is well on track to the 40 percent reductions.

In Canada, successive governments keep kicking the problem down to the next crop of political leaders, with target years that slid from Kyoto (by 2012) to Copenhagen (by 2020) to the so-called Paris target (2030) to the new one  — carbon neutrality by 2050.

COVID does create an unprecedented opportunity to set a new course.  As International Energy Agency Executive Director Dr. Fatih Birol has said, the world has a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to pour investment dollars into renewable energy and energy efficiency. The same call has been made by leading economists. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Sir Nicholas Stern, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, with other authors has set out a plan to restart the economy with climate-aligned investments. Their report was the product of interviews with over 200 economists and central bankers from the G20. Investing in a post-fossil fuel world is the best move for restoring a healthy economy.

Alternatively, the default knee-jerk political reactivity of Canada could lead us into grave error. We cannot cave into Alberta and the oil sands.  We must invest in the Alberta economy of the future, following the brilliant lead of TransAlta’s new solar investments using Tesla batteries.  We have a sustainable future within our grasp.

This may be the last lifetime for that “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Contributing Writer Elizabeth May, MP for Gulf Saanich-Islands, is the former leader of the Green Party of Canada.